Just two weeks before the 9/11 hijackers slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, members of a Saudi family abruptly vacated their luxury home near Sarasota, leaving a brand new car in the driveway, a refrigerator full of food, fruit on the counter — and an open safe in a master bedroom.
BY DAN CHRISTENSEN AND ANTHONY SUMMERS
Freshly released but heavily censored FBI documents include tantalizing new information about events connected to the Sarasota Saudis who moved suddenly out of their home about two weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, leaving behind clothing, jewelry and cars.
The documents were released to BrowardBulldog.org Monday amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation. The news organization sued in 2012 after being denied access to the FBI’s file on a once-secret investigation focusing on Abdulaziz al-Hijji, his wife, Anoud, and her father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince.
An FBI letter accompanying the documents, the fourth batch to be released since the lawsuit was filed, cites national security and other reasons to justify why certain information was withheld. The letter does not explain why the documents were not previously acknowledged to exist.
One FBI report, dated April 3, 2002, recounts a chilling discovery made by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office on Halloween 2001.
Deputies were called after a man with a Tunisian passport was observed disposing of items in a dumpster behind a storage facility he had rented in Bradenton.
The man’s name is blanked out, but the report says authorities who searched the dumpster found “a self-printed manual on terrorism and Jihad, a map of the inside of an unnamed airport, a rudimentary last will and testament, a weight to fuel ratio calculation for a Cessna 172 aircraft, flight training information from the Flight Training Center in Venice [Fla.] and printed maps of Publix shopping centers in Tampa Bay.”
The Flight Training Center is where 9/11 hijack pilot Ziad Jarrah, who was at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in Shanksville, Pa, took flying lessons.
The three paragraphs that follow are completely blanked out. The reasons cited include information “specifically authorized under criteria established by [presidential] executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”
The documents were located via court-ordered text searches using the names of the al-Hijjis and Ghazzawi. U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch in Fort Lauderdale is currently reviewing more than 80,000 pages of 9/11 records.
“This release suggests that the FBI has covered up information that is vitally important to public safety,” said Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents BrowardBulldog.org. “It’s startling that after initially denying they had any documents they continue to find new documents as the weeks and months roll by. Each new batch suggests there are many, many more documents.”
“There needs to be a full-scale explanation of what’s going on here,” said Julin.
The report of the Bradenton incident includes information about the al-Hijjis. The redactions, however, keep secret how what happened there ties back to the al-Hijjis.
The same is true about another FBI document dated Feb. 2, 2012.
On that day, FBI offices in Tampa and Charlotte, North Carolina, received information from Washington stamped “secret” stating that a “person of interest” in the FBI’s massive 9/11 investigation had returned to the United States.
The person, whose name is redacted, was reported to be “traveling to Texas and LA for business/tourism.” The person apparently told authorities upon entering the country that he could be reached in Charlotte. He provided a telephone number “associated with furniture manufacturers in North Carolina,” the report states.
Details about that were blanked out. But the report also states, “Tampa is notified that a person of interest to Tampa regarding the PENTTBOMB investigation has a valid visa for re-entry into the U.S.” PENTTBOMB is the FBI’s code name for its 9/11 investigation.
In all, the FBI released 11 pages Monday. They contain statements reiterating that the al-Hijjis had departed the United States in haste shortly before 9/11 and that “further investigation” had “revealed many connections” between them and persons associated with “attacks on 9/11/2001.”
Those statements flatly contradict the FBI’s public statements that agents found no connection between the al-Hijjis and the 9/11 plot.
Yet they dovetail with the account of a counterintelligence source who has said investigators in 2001 found evidence — phone records and photographs of license plates snapped at the entrance to the al-Hijjis’ Sarasota-area neighborhood — that showed Mohamed Atta, other hijackers and former Broward resident and current al-Qaeda fugitive Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji home.
None of that information, or even the fact that an investigation in Sarasota took place, was disclosed by the FBI to Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the attacks or to the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. Graham co-chaired the joint inquiry.
The documents, while stamped secret, are marked as having been formally classified earlier this month in accordance with the National Security Information Security Classification. The parts of the documents that were not released are to be kept secret until 2039.
Among other things, the government asserted that classification is necessary because the censored information pertains to foreign relations or foreign activities, including confidential sources.
“This could be about information considered embarrassing to Saudi Arabia,” said Julin. Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals.
The April 2002 FBI report contains additional new information, though the deletions make its full meaning difficult to discern.
It says the Tampa FBI office “has determined that [blank] is an antagonist of the United States of America. [Blank] resides in Jerusalem. [Blank] allegedly has held regular and recurring meetings at his residence to denounce and criticize the United States of America and its policies. [Blank] is allegedly an international businessman with great wealth.
“In November 2001, [blank] visited the United States for the first time. He traveled to Sarasota, Florida, opened a bank account and made initial queries into the purchase of property in south central Florida. [Blank] intends to establish a Muslim compound in Central Florida. [Blank] revealed that [blank] is fearful of [blank] and fears that [blank] intends to begin offensive operations against the United States if he is able to purchase property and establish a Muslim compound in Central Florida.”
Three follow-up lines are blanked out.